The Pregnancy Penalty: How Working Women Pay for Having Kids

Expecting mothers are seen as less competent and more irrational than their peers.

Danny Moloshok/Reuters

This summer while enormously pregnant with twins I stepped into a meeting with a business executive with whom I had previously corresponded by email.

"Oh, wow," he said, clearly taken aback by my belly. "No one told me you were pregnant."

I paused and smiled, since it was not a condition about which I ever intended to warn people. But it started me thinking—is there a penalty for being pregnant? And even more permanently, would people start to see me as a parent first and a professional second in ways my husband never would be? The answer, according to research published in Harvard Business Review, is "yes."

A recent issue of the magazine reported on an experiment in which

people were asked to imagine that they were McKinsey & Company clients, evaluating consultants on the basis of several profiles. One of the profiles varied two factors: gender and whether the candidate had a child. When identified as a mother as opposed to a father or a woman or man whose parental status wasn't mentioned, the consultant was judged to be significantly less competent and was least likely to be hired or promoted by the participants. The mere mention of a child led people to see the mother as less competent, and this perception did her in.

In other words, bearing children means others view you as less able to bear your workload. And makes them think about lots of other things other than the work that you are ostensibly at work to do. Women wrestle with how much to talk about their children and whether or not to mention that they are leaving work to deal with such domestic duties as picking up children or getting home to feed them dinner. Now it is clear to me that there is a reason why such conversations should remain hidden: They cost money.

As the HBR piece noted, in 2007 a "laboratory experiment found that mothers were penalized on a host of measures, including perceived competence and recommended starting salary. Men were not penalized for, and sometimes benefited from, being a parent. The audit study showed that actual employers discriminate against mothers, but not against fathers."

Once I actually pulled up the 2007 paper from Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik, I found even more grim numbers.

In a summary of economic research, Crittenden (2001) concludes that, for those under the age of 35, the pay gap between mothers and nonmothers is larger than the pay gap between men and women."

And this nugget:

Similarly, other studies show that visibly pregnant women managers are judged as less committed to their jobs, less dependable, and less authoritative, but warmer, more emotional, and more irrational than otherwise equal women managers who are not visibly pregnant.

I can say as someone who spent huge chunks of the last three years visibly pregnant, people sure did want to talk a lot about the babies-in-waiting and a lot less about the reporting and writing and research I was doing. Sometimes that was lovely and gracious. And much of the time it was off-putting. At a panel event I attended eight months pregnant a gentleman I met months earlier talked to me not about leadership, as he had the first time we met, but babies and how I was going to manage to keep working after they arrived. Pregnancy is not something that can be hidden past a certain point, and the very public nature of this very personal decision to have children often forces you to address it. But as I told a friend after a meeting with an editor in which I had to repeat, once again, that I intended to keep working once the baby came, being pregnant did not make me nicer or warmer or more interested in talking about my private life. It just made me pregnant.

All of this mother-crushing dollar-crunching led me to Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor who authored the HBR piece and who conducted the McKinsey experiment.

She said that part of the issue with attacking bias against mothers is that most people don't think of it as discrimination.

"There is a perception that it is benign. 'We like her,'" says Cuddy. "It is hard for people to reconcile their feelings, which are sort of warm, with the idea that it is still a kind of prejudice and can lead to negative out comes."

The fact that the barriers may be wrapped in cashmere-padded kindness also makes it tougher for women to speak up when they are passed over for promotion or paid less, she says.

"It makes it so much harder for the mother to stand up for herself, because she is like, 'people are nice to me and I feel like a jerk for saying anything.' Honestly I don't think most of these people feel that they are being hostile. It is very paternalistic, even when it is coming from other women. That makes it hard for the actor to accept the idea that this isn't okay and it makes it really hard for women to stand up for themselves."

And she says, women are just as guilty of the prejudice as men.

"Women are not less sexist than men. Whether it is real or perceived it is coming from other women, especially other mothers."

So what is a boss to do around women who have just or about to become parents? It seems asking is the best solution.

Write Cuddy and her co-author Joan C. Williams, a distinguished professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, "there's a very easy way to find out if a new mother (or father) wants a promotion that will require longer hours or an opportunity for professional development that will involve more travel: Ask. Even well- intentioned assumptions can get you into trouble."